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Meaningful Movies Help People Cope With Life’s Challenges

Four friends in a backyard watching a movie on a projection screen

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Key Takeaways

  • Movies that depict the range of human emotion and experience can have a great impact on their audiences.
  • A recent study shows that emotionally moving movies in which characters strive to achieve meaningful purpose actually help us make sense of our own struggles.

Films are made to depict complex human emotions, as well as play on them. And some films move us because we relate to them, while others reveal ways of life entirely different than our own. Whether foreign or familiar, movies can have great influence on our lives.

A recent study published in Mass Communication and Society by researchers from Ohio State University aimed to analyze that impact by examining the impressions left by meaningful films. The findings show that poignant and moving films can actually help us deal with life's challenges.

The Research

The study focused specifically on the effects of films with eudaimonic narratives—in other words, films that portray characters achieving happiness through self-actualization and meaningful purpose in life.

Lead researcher Jared Ott notes that the body of research on this type of content has been growing in recent years as scholars try to better understand why people continue to seek out such emotionally poignant stories. This study focused on the link to psychological well-being.

"Specifically, we were familiar with narrative therapy techniques, and wondered if eudaimonic narratives might provide similar and more broadly accessible benefits," Ott says. "We were interested in investigating the ability of such films to help people make sense of their difficult life situations, which can potentially disrupt an individual’s sense of narrative identity."

Researchers compiled two lists of 20 films made after 1985 with high viewer ratings. One list contained films described by users of the movie website IMDB using words such as meaningful, inspiring, and poignant—including such films as “Hotel Rwanda,” “Up,” “Schindler’s List,” and “The Shawshank Redemption.” Films that were included in the second list were not described in the same terms by users and were therefore considered less meaningful, such as “Ratatouille,” “Pulp Fiction,” and “Fight Club.”

Jared Ott, Lead researcher

They help make salient for people that life often involves both joy and gains, as well as sorrow and losses, and that the very coexistence of such elements is often what provides meaning in our lives

— Jared Ott, Lead researcher

The study included 1,098 participants who were recruited online and ranged in age from 18 to 94 years old. Individuals were randomly selected to receive one of the two lists and then were asked to identify which movies they'd seen. They then were asked to respond to a survey regarding one of the films they'd identified.

The survey questions prompted participants to share their feelings about the film, how it aligned with their values and how this might have shifted their perspective on lived experience in general.

The results showed that participants who discussed meaningful movies were more likely to say the film aided in their understanding of difficulties in life. These participants also rated their acceptance of the human condition higher than the individuals who watched less meaningful films and felt more motivated to be a better person and help others.

Researchers attribute these positive effects to the more meaningful films' emotional range, poignancy, blend of happiness and sadness and their ability to elevate and inspire viewers.

"They help make salient for people that life often involves both joy and gains, as well as sorrow and losses, and that the very coexistence of such elements is often what provides meaning in our lives," Ott says. "It makes sense that a focus on more universal themes of what it means to be human might resonate with people in a more long-lasting way, compared to the relatively short-term gains that enjoyment or escapism may provide."

Coping Through Film

Countless films help us better understand our own lives and the lives of others, including “Moonlight,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Life of Pi,” “The Pursuit of Happyness,” “Forrest Gump” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” to name a few. And as research shows, they resonate thanks to their honest depictions of the human experience.

But if we're looking to escape our daily lives, we often turn to movies we consider more "mindless", silly, scary or funny. While we may not directly connect these films to making meaning of our own experiences, there are often still lessons to be learned.

"It seems to lend credence to the view that many films are not exclusively either meaningful or pleasurable, but films can contain each of these elements in varying degrees," Ott says. "Films that we think are purely entertaining may often contain more meaningful and value-laden themes, which may impart benefits beyond just a few hours of enjoyment."

Marisa Franco, PhD

We develop what's called parasocial relationships with characters, people we feel connected to and invested in even though they're unaware of us. We feel their pain and learn through their experience

— Marisa Franco, PhD

However, film isn't the only medium to which people can look for guidance. Psychologist Marisa Franco, PhD, points to the example of the popular HBO series “Insecureas a helpful portrayal of how friendships can fall apart over time, leaving both parties confused. This is a scenario many individuals can relate to.

"We develop what's called parasocial relationships with TV characters, people we feel connected to and invested in even though they're unaware of us," Franco says. "When we develop friendships, we begin to include our friend in our sense of self. What hurts them, hurts us, and this can happen in parasocial relationships, as well. We feel their pain and learn through their experience."

Regardless of medium, real stories resonate with and influence people. And while a causal relationship between meaningful films and positive psychological well-being can't necessarily be established through this research, Ott points out that film is a readily available resource that can potentially help individuals achieve a greater sense of self.

"If eudaimonic media can provide a source of psychological resources to help people cope with their own challenging life circumstances, as well as motivate them to pursue meaningful goals, that presents potential well-being benefits that are available to anyone who has access to such films," Ott says.

What This Means For You

Meaningful films can help you to better understand your own life experiences, while also pulling back the curtain on completely different walks of life. Tap this easily accessible resource for greater motivation and inspiration.

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  1. Ott JM, Tan NQP, Slater MD. Eudaimonic media in lived experience: retrospective responses to eudaimonic vs. non-eudaimonic filmsMass Commun Soc. Published online April 21, 2021. doi:10.1080/15205436.2021.1912774